Madison had been attending the Memphis-area church for a year and a half and let youth leaders know she didn’t have a personal relationship with Christ. More than 25 people began praying for her salvation. Then at a Disciple Now event with the theme “Jesus is King,” she trusted Christ as Savior.
Payne likewise attended for months without knowing Jesus. One Sunday morning, next generation pastor Jon Gambrell noticed another student sharing the gospel with Payne between Sunday School and worship. Through tears, he prayed to receive Christ.
In all, Fayette’s youth ministry, which averages 100-120 in weekly worship, saw some 20 teenagers baptized last year. Such fruitfulness stems from a culture of discipleship.
“A group of my emerging leaders likes to meet on Wednesday before my youth service,” Gambrell said. “We take them through multiple layers of discipleship from apologetics to how to share your faith.” Young men called to ministry learn to preach. Other students learn to teach Bible studies. “But their favorite thing to do is go out door to door” sharing Christ, he said.
“The staff at Fayette have created a culture of loving their community and they share Jesus,” noted Jay Barbier, youth specialist for the Tennessee Baptist Mission Board.
“Evangelism is more caught than taught and this body of Christ lives this out. They model from the top down what it is to be a follower of Jesus and how evangelism is a necessity,” he said.
Barbier praised Gambrell for being a servant leader. “He focuses on raising up leaders and he gives them the opportunity to lead. He models what the Great Commission has called us to do, as he goes, he makes disciples.
“My hope is what they are doing at Fayette could trickle down to every church in Tennessee and the world.”
Churches across the Southern Baptist Convention will need to develop a similar culture of evangelism and discipleship among their students if the convention is to reverse the ongoing decline in reaching, baptizing and discipling teenagers.
Meeting that goal would mark a stark turnaround from the SBC’s decades-long slide in youth baptisms. Convention wide baptisms of 12 to 17-year-olds are down 38 percent from 2000 and 47 percent from 1980.
To reach teens for Christ, youth ministries need to get involved in their communities, and youth pastors need to provide regular opportunities for students to respond to the gospel, said Ben Trueblood, director of student ministry at LifeWay Christian Resources. He fears gospel invitations are disappearing from youth ministry.
“It’s a mistake to completely remove the public invitation and public explanation of the gospel and how to follow Jesus,” Trueblood said. “That is something we’ve seen happen in student ministries” as an overcorrection of manipulative invitations. “A healthier approach” is non-manipulative invitations, he said.
Teenagers “seem to be slower to respond (to the gospel) than in decades past,” he said. That shift, Trueblood said, necessitates follow-up to big events and ongoing dialogue with youth.
Trueblood is not alone in strategizing about how to reach more teenagers. In February, student ministry leaders from SBC entities, state conventions and churches convened a day-long Zoom call to compile suggestions for reaching students. The TBMB’s Barbier was on that call.
“Coming out of this pandemic I was excited to be able to meet with youth ministry leaders to discuss how we can help change the direction of losing teens to focus on reaching teens for Christ. This must be more than something we just write about or read about. There needs to be a change in the culture of churches that have focused more inwardly than outwardly,” he noted.
“This change of culture can happen, and it takes a movement of God that starts with prayer and a hunger to reach the lost,” Barbier said. B&R — This includes reporting by David Roach of Baptist Press and Lonnie Wilkey of the Baptist and Reflector.